In defense of Disco

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The sound was ubiquitous: soaring vocals anchored by a deep, loping bass line and four-on-the-floor drums, all of it floating on an impossibly lush bed of strings, horns, electric pianos, guitars and synthesizers. For a few years in the mid 1970s disco music, a mutant mix of funk, soul, Latin and psychedelic sounds, was simply inescapable.

Though the music was denounced by rock and roll purists and driven into near obscurity as a national embarrassment by the early 1980s, the sounds of classic disco have risen anew in the songs of some of today’s biggest acts, staggering forth like a glitter smeared crazy uncle from the basement of popular music’s past, jabbering about the glory days of hot pants, platform shoes, and “Boogie Oogie Oogie.”

I was around seven or eight-years-old when disco was at its peak in terms of chart dominance and artistic influence. And while I can appreciate the lovingly detailed attempts by modern acts such as Daft Punk and Bruno Mars to bring disco’s effervescent sound into the 21st century, the music’s essential spirit—an open armed, hedonistic innocence—has proven far harder to capture in these cynical, information plagued times.

While I once would have been embarrassed to admit it, I count myself lucky to have been old enough to actually take in and appreciate disco during its heyday, and young enough not have been influenced by any of the high brow critical disdain the music was lashed with even as it dominated the top 40 charts.

With the passage of time, the artistry of disco can be appreciated without many of the prejudices that prevailed almost four decades ago. What remains is some of the most inventive, technically sophisticated and plainly ridiculous music to ever grab hold of the American consciousness: the operatic flight of Abba’s “Dancing Queen”; the insinuating funk of Chic’s “La Freak”; Donna Summer’s sinister, robotic “I Feel Love”; and of course, “Night Fever”, “Stayin’Alive” and half a dozen other expertly-crafted songs by the Bee Gees.

If pushed, I’ll place the songs of Abba and the Bee Gees up against any pop music in the world canon, the Beatles included. Though I’ve never been much of a Kiss fan (best to avoid their lone disco attempt “I Was Made for Lovin’ You”) the band’s guitarist Paul Stanley probably said it best: “If you can’t appreciate Abba as great pop music, then you’re just over-thinking it.”

The disco movement also introduced some of the finest, freakiest music television of all time. Soul Train, with its regally-baritoned host Don Cornelius and cartoonishly-creative dancers, was a Saturday morning favorite in my household. I think I may have even tuned in to “Dance Fever,” whose host, the ludicrous Deney Terrio, is credited with teaching John Travolta his moves for “Saturday Night Fever,” the ultimate artifact of the disco era.

With success came imitation and, inevitably, backlash. Rock bands scrambled to assimilate the sound of disco, with mixed results. The most successful of these fusions was almost certainly Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” a strutting, chilled out look at urban romance. And while I would never list “Miss You” as among the Rolling Stones’ finest moments, that bass line is simply undeniable.

And yes, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that disco produced its fair share of cringe worthy songs. I’d argue, however, that those moments are no more heinous than the worst that rock or country has offered up. Honestly, is “YMCA” or “Disco Duck” really any more unlistenable than “Pour Some Sugar on Me” or “Achy Breaky Heart”?

Like many transcendent cultural moments throughout history, the disco era ended in disillusionment, mass derision, and death, as the bill for a decade of mindless drug abuse and sexual “freedom” came due. In July 1979 hundreds of Chicago residents stormed Comisky Field to smash and burn disco records during a “Disco Demolition Night.” The era of Yuppies, New Wave music and AIDS was just around the corner. The lights were lowered; the party was all but over.

And yet, disco never completely disappeared. It’s musical and production innovations, particularly the creation of extended dance mixes for clubs and its use of cutting edge technology, influenced a new generation of electronic and dance music DJ’s and musicians. It’s embrace of often-vilified sub cultures, particularly Latinos and homosexuals, allowed disco to become the soundtrack for minority communities across the globe.

When I happen to hear one of those classic disco hits now, I’m most struck by what seems to me to be the music’s most basic, and hard to define, quality — joy. Disco was a music so hugely optimistic that it was downright weird, a quality I’ve always valued in my popular entertainment. With a decade of war behind it and a seemingly overwhelming urge to dance and drug itself into oblivion, America embraced the sound of an alternate universe where the party never ended and the groove played on forever.

And I’ll be forever grateful I was there to hear it when it was first beamed in, new and shining, like the dream of a future we could never truly believe in.

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